Breaking Bad: What Does That Phrase Actually Mean?

Turns out this phrase—now a Southern regionalism—was used as early as 1919

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This is the first part of a weeklong series of Breaking Bad-related stories, all leading up to the series finale airing this Sunday. Tomorrow: Breaking Bad Unseen: What You May Have Missed

Here’s a question that’s been hovering in the Breaking Bad fandom for years, but now worth revisiting as the series’ finale is almost upon us: What does it actually mean to break bad?

Show creator Vince Gilligan has said (as in the video above) that he had thought it was a commonly used phrase when he decided to use it as a title, not knowing that the expression was a Southern regionalism from the area in Virginia from which he hails. It means “to raise hell,” he says, as in “I was out the other night at the bar…and I really broke bad.”

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But, while the gist of his definition is pretty widely accepted, Gilligan’s use-it-in-a-sentence definition of the phrase is an incomplete accounting of its meanings. In general, “breaking bad” connotes more violence than “raising hell” does. A glance at the bevy of definitions at user-sourced Urban Dictionary reveals that different contributors think the words possess a wide variety of nuances: to “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.”

Reference books back up that third meaning seen at Urban Dictionary. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English gives a definition of “to act in a threatening, menacing manner”; American Slang gives a similar definition and traces the phrase to 1970s black usage. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says it’s African-American slang from the ’60s that means “to become angry or aggressive”—and that on 1980s college campuses it could (perhaps in a “bad equals good” sense?) mean “to perform well.” The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms labels the phrase as Southern slang that means “to behave in a violent manner for no good reason.”

One of the earliest instances of the phrase appearing in the New York Times backs up the definition (to turn violent unnecessarily) and history (black, Southern, 1970s) suggested by those lexicographers. In a 1980 excerpt from John Langston Gwaltney’s Drylongso, a Self-Portrait of Black America, an oral history of African-American communities; in describing his view of race relations, a black man from rural Missouri told the author that “if a white man was to come over here and ask me anything, I wouldn’t break bad with him.”

But, while that idiom matches the one appearing in many dictionaries, there’s an even earlier appearance of the expression with a very different sense to it, suggesting the violence now implied by the phrase came later. In a 1919 overview of goings-on on Wall Street, the writer suggested that “the average speculator will not take a position in the highly speculative industrials for over Sunday, but because he can’t stay out of the market altogether, gets into the rails at the end of the week in hope of making a successful turn and with confidence that if things ‘break bad’ over Sunday rails will feel the shock less than the industrials.”

That older use of “break bad,” meaning “to go bad,” requires little knowledge of regional slang, and it makes enough sense that anyone might come up with or at least understand it. Say, to take an example, one George R. R. Martin of New Jersey and the denizens of Westeros. In A Clash of Kings, the second book in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, the people of that fictional land use the phrase several times, as in:

“There’s few out-and-out traitors, though there’s some, even your spider hasn’t found them all,” Bywater had warned [Tyrion]. “But there’s hundreds greener than spring grass, men who joined for bread and ale and safety. No man likes to look craven in the sight of his fellows, so they’ll fight brave enough at the start, when it’s all warhorns and blowing banners. But if the battle looks to be going sour they’ll break, and they’ll break bad. The first man to throw down his spear and run will have a thousand more trodding on his heels.”

Perhaps that link between Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad is a sign: when the latter ends, there will still be plenty of the former, so there’s no need for any TV fans to break bad.

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